Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

This has been on the to-be-read shelves -- in two different editions, actually, since I traded in my His Dark Materials bookclub omnibus for three trade paperbacks a few years ago -- for a good decade now. But I wanted to read it before the movie hit, since I do have an interest in seeing the movie.

The first thing to note is that The Golden Compass, as a novel, isn't particularly anti-religion. Yes, I know that things ramp up in the latter parts of the trilogy, and the world government we see at a distance is clearly both totalitarian and an evolved version of the Catholic church, but, in this book, that's background at best. (And if I had to list all of the genre books with nasty totalitarian churches, I'd be here for months.)

Golden Compass is instead the story of Lyra, the obligatory spunky girl who has had an odd upbringing in this alternate world's version of Oxford. Lyra believes her parents are dead and doesn't expect to be particularly important in her world -- but learns differently. She's given the titular Plot Voucher early on (officially called an alethiometer), is told to keep it secret, and discovers that she's amazingly -- perhaps uniquely -- good at manipulating the G.C. to learn the truth about her world. So far, so generic, but Pullman's world is fully imagined and lived-in, and his characters are wonderful.

(Pullman does struggle a bit with viewpoint -- The Golden Compass is told almost entirely in limited third person centered on Lrya, but it wanders off a few times, which is a bit jarring.)

It's also the kind of YA novel that doesn't have any obvious dumbed-down quality to it; the events and ideas in it are appropriate for younger readers, and its not written in a style that will keep them out, but it's all very natural. It's a story told in the right tone and words for that story, for an audience that includes teenagers but isn't restricted to them.

Of course, some of what makes it appropriate for younger readers are the crowd-pleasing elements -- the secret of the alethiometer itself, the airships, the hidden society of the Gyptians, and, above all, the panzerbjorne (armored bears). And how can any of us resist a book with a big fight scene between two talking armored bears? We can't. If you haven't read it yet, I'm afraid you're required to do so now (or at least watch the movie and then tell people the book was better).

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